An Introduction to Visual Cultures of the Circumpolar North

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Editor’s Note: This is the introductory post to the Visual Cultures of the Circumpolar North series edited by Isabelle Gapp and Mark A. Cheetham .


This two-part NiCHE series edited by Isabelle Gapp and Mark A. Cheetham presents interdisciplinary perspectives on cultural, social, and environmental dynamics across Indigenous communities and settler populations in the circumpolar north, including Alaska, Canada, Greenland, the Nordic countries, and Russia. The research presented in this series is a collaboration with a Jackman Humanities Institute (University of Toronto) Working Group on the same themes. Now in its second year, this forum brings together 20 international researchers at all career stages to develop interdisciplinary perspectives on Indigenous, environmental, and settler pasts, presents, and futures around the circumpolar north and to examine the complex visual and textual cultures of this region. Some posts in this series are from members of this group; we have also extended the conversation through many other voices.

Herman Moll, A map of the North Pole with all the territories that lye near it, known to us &c according to the latest discoveries, and most exact observations agreeable to modern history (c. 1732). Baldwin Collection of Canadiana, Toronto Public Library.

In advertising our series, we have frequently turned to maps, cartographic representations of space and place that demarcate the Arctic and Circumpolar North. How do we represent the multi-faceted, multi-temporal, and materially and visually diverse cultures of these sub-Arctic regions?

In Herman Moll’s map of circa 1732, a western understanding of the North Pole and its encircling territories were printed on paper. The northern reaches of North America and Russia that have yet to be “discovered” occupy the empty space of “Parts Unknown.” Meanwhile, settler names label islands encountered by expeditions from the Anglosphere. Expeditionary and environmental histories manifest as annotations along coastlines. The mythical maelstrom off the coast of the Lofoten Islands is noted, while Greenland extends into Svalbard, collapsing the Greenland Sea, with “Ice and mountains covered in snow.” Much of the Circumpolar North eludes the explorer and the mapmaker, and as such directly references understandings of northernness that would persist for centuries to come.

In the introduction to the NiCHE series, Northern Borders and Boundaries, Heather Green and Jonathan Luedee write that:

Throughout the twentieth century, appeals to the idea of the “New North” have obscured the colonial and capitalist roots of ongoing and emergent issues in the Arctic, and marginalized those northerners whose lives and communities have been circumscribed by the demarcation and enforcement of political borders and colonial boundaries.

Helmer Osslund, Autumn Day at Torneträsk (1909). Image: Nordiska Museum, Stockholm.

Following many northern landscape painters from the Nordic countries, the USA, and Canada, in the past, art history and visual culture often construed the North as an unpeopled sublime wilderness ready for personal, psychic, or collective conquest. In recent decades, however, curators, artists, and academics have seen the Arctic particularly as a more complex place. Eco-critical issues, including climate change, militarization, and the displacement of peoples, have come into focus in art history texts including Beyond Wilderness: The Group of Seven, Canadian Identity, and Contemporary Art (2007) and in more interdisciplinary collections such as Nordic Narratives of Nature and the Environment: Ecocritical Approaches to Northern European Literatures and Cultures (2018). Meanwhile, academic research groups such as The Art of Nordic Colonialism in Copenhagen, Mediated Arctic Geographies in Tampere, and Arctic Voices in Tromsø all signal a circumpolar/Arctic turn in Nordic art historical research.

Mock-up of a giant iceberg in the Nordiska Museum’s Great Hall. Photo: Kreativ Teknik.

In more recent years, the Arctic and Circumpolar North have become the topic for interdisciplinary exhibitions concerned with the material and visual culture of this multi-national space. The British Museum in London staged the Arctic: culture and climate exhibition between 2020-21. Working in collaboration within Indigenous communities throughout the Arctic they explored both past and present Indigenous understandings of the land and knowledge of climate change, with ice melt being the focus. Concurrently, the Nordiska Museum in Stockholm opened Arktis: medan isen smälter (Arctic: While the Ice is Melting, 2020-2022). Bathed in blue, and with immersive installations of icebergs fragmenting and Arctic atmospheres and landscapes illuminated onto a vaulted ceiling, the exhibition incorporated more localised (Nordic) and scientific perspectives into a multi-faceted exploration of the visual and material culture of Arctic communities and industry.

While we listed familiar national coordinates in the Call for Papers for the sake of clarity, it is our hope that transnational, regional, and local themes will also come to the fore. We also specified that contributors emphasize the visual aspects of their topics. No doubt this focus is a peculiarity of the co-editors’ art historical training. More than a disciplinary distortion, however, and as the posts over the next eight weeks attest, we believe that it has been through the circulation of visual culture (often in tandem with textual materials) that much about the circumpolar north has been and is still determined, both in culture broadly and in science. Images – whether it’s an old photograph or a contemporary data manifestation – do not speak for themselves. We must self-consciously speak and write about them, though not for them. Neither can pictures’ worth be measured in terms of 1000 words, as the cliché goes. Instead, images have a beguiling way of thwarting our complete understanding or translation.

We are delighted by the variety and acuity of the essays assembled in this series. Individually and collectively, the authors expand our sense of the Circumpolar North, its visual cultures, and the promise of critical engagements with its issues.


Feature image: John Savio. Reindeer Calves II ( between 1928-1934). Image: Nasjonalmuseet, Oslo.
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Isabelle Gapp and Mark A. Cheetham

Isabelle Gapp and Mark Cheetham are co-leads (alongside Ivana Dizdar) of the Jackman Humanities Institute Working Group Visual Cultures of the Circumpolar North at the University of Toronto. They are both based in the Department of Art History, Isabelle as an Arts & Science Postdoctoral Fellow and Mark as a Professor of Art History.

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